Chapter 2: The Decline of Christian Civilization

The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 2: The Decline of Christian Civilization

In 1940 Winston Churchill declared: ‘The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.’ Scottish theologian John Baillie responded in the question posed by his Riddell Lectures of 1945: What is Christian Civilization? He claimed that the essential element of Christian civilization is that the population as a whole believes what the church teaches.1

But how long is it since that could be said of the so-called Christian countries? In 1946 Christopher Dawson, a notable Roman Catholic historian of western culture, wrote:

Today Christendom no longer exists and we are moving towards a world in which the Christian peoples or the peoples that have formerly been Christian will be a minority. . . We no longer have any solid grounds for believing that the post-Christian era is likely to realize any of the humanitarian utopias in which the idealists of the nineteenth century put their faith.2

A similar judgement made in 1922 by German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler had shocked readers. In his book The Decline of the West, Spengler argued that all cultures pass through a life cycle, and that western civilization was already in unavoidable decline. The time had passed when spiritual forces and values were determining the character of the western world; a new era had begun in which the scholar, the artist, the seer and the saint were being replaced by the soldier, the engineer and the politician, resulting in a technical civilization which was no longer Christendom.

Churchill’s solemn warning at a critical point in European history only drew widespread attention to what was already happening. The survival of Christian civilization did not depend on who won the Battle of Britain; it had already ceased to exist. World War II was itself a sign that Christian civilization was in an advanced form of disintegration. Dissolution has not come about as a direct result of enemy military action, Nazi or otherwise, but as a result of forces of quite a different order. And to borrow a phrase from the nursery rhyme, neither all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men can possibly put Christian civilization back together again.

We need to examine what we mean by Christian civilization, or ‘Christendom’, a word often used as a synonym. The term Christendom was coined to name the domain or realm where Christ was believed to rule. It may be defined as that society, with its own geographical area, which was subject to the rule of Christ, and whose culture and way of life had become so permeated and shaped by Christian beliefs and values as to form a cohesive whole. Christopher Dawson, in his book The Formation of Christendom, offers this description:

A culture and its language together form an autonomous world of meaning and existence which is indeed the only world of which the individual is conscious. It is man-made in the sense that it is the product of man’s creativity and his power of symbolic communication. But the individual is not aware of this, since both culture and language are unconscious processes in which men are immersed from their earliest infancy and on which this earliest social and intellectual activity is based.3

In the case of Christendom, the ‘autonomous world of meaning and existence’ was supplied by the complex of myths, goals and values of the religious tradition we now call Christianity. Both terms are relatively modern, first used (synonymously) in the seventeenth century. The reason why both these terms came into use comparatively recently is that when one lives within a culture like Christendom, there is no call to give it a name; as Dawson observed, it is ‘the only world of which the individual is conscious’. The practice of giving names to religious traditions is likewise a modem phenomenon, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has pointed out,4 and it derives from the growing awareness of other cultures and civilizations. As soon as one feels the need to name one’s own culture or religion, one is no longer living wholly within its horizon; rather, one has taken, at least in imagination, the first tentative step outside it. This process of looking at one’s world and culture more objectively and analytically has made it necessary for us, first to create such terms as Christianity and Christendom, and, more recently, to distinguish between the two. Douglas Hall makes this distinction clearly in the title of his book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity. It may be true that Christendom no longer exists but that Christianity, in a variety of forms, is still very much alive. In this chapter we shall examine the decline and fall of Christendom, leaving to later chapters the definition and destiny of Christianity.

The two terms Christianity and Christendom have been linked for so long that it was commonly assumed that the two must stand or fall together. Yet Christendom is at least some three to five centuries younger than Christianity and in some ways is a cultural product of Christianity. Christianity is a cultural tradition of religious belief and practice which, by its own reckoning, is 2,000 years old in the year 2000. Beginning as a Jewish sect, formed by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth after his death, the embryonic Christian church eventually broke away from its Jewish beginnings and became a new religion for Gentiles. It has long been independent from, and even antagonistic to, the Judaism which gave it birth and with which it still has so much in common. Within three to four centuries Christianity had outstripped all of its rivals, such as Mithraism and Manichaeism. But, as the modern study of Christian origins has made clear, the idea of establishing a Christian civilization was entirely foreign both to Jesus of Nazareth and to the early Christian movement. It was not until the Roman emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as the new state religion of the empire, shortly after the beginning of the fourth Christian century, that the vital step was taken towards the formation of Christendom.

Even the fall of Rome, although disastrous at first, nurtured the growth of western Christendom eventually. The barbarian invaders were in time converted to Christianity; the bishop of Rome adopted the Roman emperor’s title of Pontifex Maximus; and the church, by stages, inherited the mantle of power which had previously been the Roman emperors in the west. The eastern church, by contrast, always remained more subservient to the emperor at Constantinople and later to the czar in Russia. Only in the west did the church largely fill the power vacuum left by the fall of Rome.

But the formation of Christendom depended on more than imperial authority. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, a synthesis of thought took place between the declining Graeco-Roman culture and the still-evolving system of Christian thought which had burst out of Judaism. This amalgam of Israelite prophetic zeal and the more abstract concepts of Greek philosophy constituted the belief system that provided Christendom with its ‘autonomous world of meaning and existence’. By the end of the first millennium, the newly emerged Christendom had extended its power and cultural influence even further than the boundaries of the former Roman Empire.

In this process Christendom had to defend itself from both external and internal threats. After vanquishing all its earlier rivals, it had to withstand both the intellectual and the military impact of Islam. Islam expanded much faster than Christianity and had established an impressive civilization in only half the time it took Christianity to reach the High Middle Ages. Eastern Christendom bore the brunt of the military and cultural advance of Islam and suffered quite heavy losses. Western Christendom, under Charlemagne’s leadership, just managed to stem the spread of Islam, and later counter-attacked in the Crusades.

Threats just as serious to the vitality of Christendom came from within, from a succession of schismatic and heretical movements. Its unity and catholicity were sorely tested, but Christendom was able to contain these threats, absorb new ideas and knowledge (such as Aristotelianism in the twelfth century) and cater for the whole range of human emotions and intellectual levels. By the High Middle Ages (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) western Christendom manifested an impressive depth of intellectual culture, and an internal unity. Its confidence is reflected in the building of the great European cathedrals. It is easy to look back nostalgically and ascribe to the Middle Ages a perfection they did not possess. To be hypercritical is just as tempting, for by present moral standards life in the Middle Ages left a great deal to be desired. Nonetheless, it can be claimed that the Christian world of the High Middle Ages attained such a homogeneity of culture, one so permeated by Christian values and beliefs (as then understood), that it can be quite properly referred to as Christendom: that is, a domain or realm where Christ was believed to rule.

This Christendom was such a living, complex unity that it could be likened to an organism, in the way any healthy homogeneous society can be called a social organism. But just as all living organisms have a beginning and an end, going through a life cycle between conception and death, so it is with social organisms. This is why civilizations come and go, as Arnold Toynbee demonstrated in his study of world history. So it has been with Christendom.

Christendom rose Out of the death of the Graeco-Roman civilization and advanced to maturity during the Middle Ages. But that phase of maturity is now long past and Christendom (or Christian civilization) is now facing its demise. And as the dying process of an organism can stretch over some time, so the demise of a social organism which has enjoyed a life span of some 1,500 years may be a lengthy process. At what point are we in that process? Is it premature or a gross exaggeration to assume the demise of Christendom?

In the wake of the colonizing expansion of the European nations, Christianity traveled faster and wider during the nineteenth century than in any previous period. As it spread around the globe, particularly in the American and African continents, Christianity was intent on incorporating the newly colonized areas into Christendom. There still existed in the Christian west a mood of triumphant conquest. By the beginning of the twentieth century all the churches of Europe and North America were heavily involved in what they called Foreign Missions, by which they meant their God-given task of Christianizing the rest of the world. An American Methodist called John R. Mott published a book in 1900 entitled The Evangelization of the World in this Generation, and this became a widely used slogan. It was fully expected that during the course of the twentieth century the whole race of humankind would be incorporated into Christendom. This was to be The Christian Century, as indicated by the journal which took that name.

Yet the twentieth century has witnessed severe and quite unexpected setbacks to the viability of Christendom itself. Firstly, the two greatest wars ever waged by humankind were initiated within Christendom and were largely fought by the so-called Christian nations. Globally, Christianity’s claims to be a harbinger of peace are far from justified. Secondly, the most horrifying act of mass murder or genocide ever perpetrated by humans occurred within a leading Christian nation; and this grew out of an anti-Semitism long present within Christendom. Thirdly, the Christian nations, made economically strong by both their political imperialism and their advanced state of technology, have not only constructed the weapons for nuclear war but also been most to blame for the selfish exploitation of the non-renewable resources of the earth, for the accumulating mass pollution, for the gross interference with the delicate ecology of the planet. All of these together endanger the future not only of humankind but of all earthly life.

The mood in the Christian west at the end of this century is entirely different from the confidence expressed at its beginning. It is hard to believe that, after two millennia, such drastic changes could have occurred in only one century. In relative terms, the collapse of Christendom is happening as fast as the collapse of the communist world following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Christian expansion is still occurring in such places as Africa and South America. But no longer is Christianity triumphantly conquering the world, as it still appeared to be doing at the beginning of this century. The so-called Old World, which set out to incorporate the New World into Christendom, has itself entered what is now called a post-Christian era.

Scottish theologian Ronald Gregor Smith said in 1966: ‘The tide of secularism has swept over the whole of the western world, the world that was once called Christendom, and beyond that it has reached into every land. . . It has flooded over every island and the remotest parts of the world’.5 No longer can it be said that Christian beliefs, values and aspirations are shaping our public life. The so-called Christian countries of the West have become increasingly secularized and no longer see themselves as subject to the rule of Christ. During the course of this century the observance of Sunday and the annual festivals of Whitsunday and Easter have almost disappeared as public Christian festivals. These once holy days have become merely holidays. They emphasize the fact that Christendom within the countries of the west is a mere shadow of its former self. Christendom has virtually ceased to exist.

How has this come about and why? The decline of Christendom in fact began just after the period of its greatest flowering. There is general agreement today that the Renaissance marks the starting point of modern times. (As we shall see in Chapter 4, this needs to be qualified by going back to the influence of the Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham, c.1285-1347). The Renaissance was much more than the rediscovery of the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. The study of these texts, written as they were by pagan, pre-Christian authors, led to such a new appreciation of the creative capabilities of humankind in its unredeemed state that it has been called a revolution of consciousness. The leading thinkers of the Renaissance began to look with new eyes on the human condition. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) wrote (when only 24) Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he imagined the Creator saying to Adam something like this: ‘I created you to be neither heavenly nor earthly that you might be free to shape and master yourself. You may descend to be lower than the beasts or you may rise to be as gods. Your growth and development depend on your own free will. You have in you the germs of a universal life.’6

Attention was no longer so focused on other-worldliness; as a result, the natural and material world came to be revalued. Humans came to be seen less as fallen creatures living in a fallen world and more as autonomous, rational beings, capable of choice, of doing good of their own free will, and of creativity. The men of the Renaissance began to turn away from the eternal and the absolute (as commonly conceived) and to concern themselves with the world of nature and of internal human experience. The Greek and Latin classics they studied became known as the humanities, for in Cicero’s day humanitas meant the education of humankind. So the leading figures of the Renaissance commended the study of the classics as the means of nurturing our human potential. Because they placed such emphasis on the value and dignity of the human condition, their philosophy came to be known as humanism. The humanists eagerly sought the rebirth of the free and creative human spirit which they believed to have flowered in the ancient world and to have been lost in the Middle Ages. Thus the Renaissance brought to birth our modern awareness of historical change, our passion for freedom, our respect for human reason, and our eagerness to investigate the natural world and to extend our knowledge.

The Renaissance humanists were not atheistic or anti-Christian, as some modern humanists are. They were aware of the need for spiritual renewal within the church, but they sought to promote reform from within. They were critical of the papacy, which had been passing through its most dismal period, but they saw no reason to doubt Christian institutions as such. In 1381 an association was founded, open to both clerics and laymen, called the Brethren of the Common Life.7 It set out to counter decadence in the church, to promote spirituality and to provide general education. One of their students was Nicholas of Cusa (c.1400-1464) who has often been regarded as the model of a ‘Renaissance man’; he became a cardinal, yet he was also a mathematician, a diagnostic physician, and an experimental scientist. Erasmus (c.1466 –1536) spent the first 30 years of his life in the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life before becoming the greatest of the humanist scholars. He wrote merciless satires against the church, and for this he lived a somewhat uneasy existence. Yet when the Protestant Reformation took place, he did not join it, partly because he was a man of moderate and tolerant temperament who abhorred violence, and partly because he was repelled by the anti-humanist element in so much of the Protestantism of his time.

Nevertheless, the Protestant Reformation was the logical outcome of the Renaissance, both because of the new sense of human freedom it created and because the resurgent interest in the study of biblical texts gave the Reformers the authority and courage to challenge the church hierarchy. It was said that Erasmus laid the egg which Martin Luther hatched. In seeing the Protestant Reformation as an assault on Christendom from within, the Catholics were partly right: the Protestant Reformation was destined to sound the death-knell to Christendom.

Protestants, of course, have long seen the Protestant Reformation as the resurrection of Christianity to new life, after its burial beneath the mass of superstition accumulated during the late Middle Ages. They too were partly right; even Catholic scholars now agree that the mediaeval church was in dire need of reformation. However, the Protestant Reformation was only partially successful, and there were heavy costs -- the fragmentation of Christendom and, ultimately, its dissolution. From this time onwards, Christendom increasingly lost both its unity and its all-embracing catholicity.

The splintering of the western church into denominations was much more serious than the schism between the eastern and western church that had taken place in 1054. The east-west schism left Christendom intact but in two sections, geographically separate from each other. The Protestant-Catholic division, however, split communities into warring Christian factions, creating conflict akin to that which smolders to this day in Northern Ireland. Christians came to spend much of their activity in countering one another.

The Protestant movement never achieved any organizational unity. The attempt to unite the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 foundered on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Failure also met the attempt to unite the churches of the British Isles at the Westminster Assembly of 1643. Subsequently the Protestant denominations splintered even further, so that catholicity came to be replaced by sectarianism. The fragmentation of the church meant that western Christendom no longer had a unified organizational structure. What survived of the former Christendom was the fact that all (except the Jews) stoutly professed their commitment to the Christian tradition and their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they differed strongly about what this entailed. There was no longer consensus on the doctrines of the church, the priesthood, the sacraments and the mode of Christian salvation. And because they no longer had a common personal head, Christians came to depend more and more upon the civil authority of the emerging nation states. Although these states saw themselves quite clearly as Christian, this process of state formation was the first step towards the emergence of the modern secular (or religiously neutral) state.

The fragmentation of Christendom which took place from the Reformation onwards did not lead directly to any questioning of the basic Christian beliefs; on the contrary, sectarian strife fostered so much bitterness and even fanaticism that the humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance was temporarily submerged. Not until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century did it surface again.

It was partly because of sectarian strife that the humanist concern with the importance of human reason reappeared. Catholics were content to submit themselves to the authority of the Pope. Protestants turned to the Bible as to a ‘paper Pope’ but could not always agree on what it required them to do and believe. Christendom now lacked one central authority to which appeal could be made. For an honest and inquiring person, this posed an enigma. Since Catholic and Protestant could not both be right, by what criterion was one to make a judgement about their competing claims? And further, since one of them was clearly wrong, how could one be sure they were not both wrong? The first to give expression to this enigma was the French humanist Montaigne (1533-92), though he himself chose to remain a practicing Catholic.

Thus, on the margins between the surviving fragments of Christendom, more searching questions were being asked. As the Reformers had earlier appealed to the Bible in order to challenge the authority of the Pope, so human reason emerged as the only criterion by which one could challenge the different seats of authority acknowledged by Catholic and Protestant. The Age of Reason began to supersede the Ages of Faith. The leading thinkers of the Enlightenment (as the age came to be called) began to submit the basic tenets of Christianity to rational examination and produced what was called ‘natural religion’. They did not see themselves as atheistic or anti-Christian, but were intent on taking the Protestant Reformation to what they believed was its logical conclusion by removing the supernatural additions. The titles of their books indicate their intent: Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (John Locke, 1695), Christianity Not Mysterious (John Toland, 1696) and Christianity as Old as the Creation (Matthew Tindal, 1730).

In the course of this examination of Christianity, there emerged the first signs of modern unbelief, as exemplified in philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), the father of modern skepticism. As Roman Catholic scholar Johann-Baptist Metz observed in 1995, the processes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment resulted in the secularization of religion, the growing freedom of people to think and speak for themselves, the demythologizing of the powerful religious images and the end of theology’s cognitive innocence. This led to a profound crisis for Christian thought and teachings. Christendom had been a cohesive whole in which Christian beliefs and values shaped both public and private life. In such a world, it did not matter much whether people talked about Christendom, Christian civilization or simply Christianity. But when the cohesive whole began to disintegrate, it became necessary to distinguish Christendom from Christianity. From the Enlightenment onwards, public life became increasingly emancipated from the fairly rigid social structures that Christianity had shaped over the centuries. Christianity continued to shape people’s private lives, however, and would do so for at least another 200 years. The decline of Christendom meant that public life was becoming increasingly secularized and Christianity was being privatized.

This has not been all bad. In so far as people had private lives within the former Christendom, they were largely contained by uniform and prescribed patterns; the opportunities to develop one’s unique individuality were strictly limited. In Christendom there were standard ways not only of being a Christian but of being truly human. These differed somewhat for those in a monastic order, for the clergy, and for the lay people; Christian duties also differed for the aristocrat and the peasant. But the patterns were firmly set out, and peer pressure, as much as the authority of the church, ensured that this remained so. By contrast, post-Christian secular society provides much more freedom for individuals to be themselves. We now regard this as a value that we would be reluctant to surrender. In post-Christian society there are not only many ways of being Christian but also many more ways of being human. And the tolerance we have inherited from the Enlightenment enables us to accept this diversity and even to celebrate it.

To appreciate how the Enlightenment marked the end for Christendom, we must look at the new kind of culture that then began to emerge. In the progression from the mediaeval world to the modern world, there have been three main steps -- the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. If the modern world was conceived in the Renaissance, it came to birth at the Reformation and entered adolescence at the Enlightenment. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we are now living through humankind’s ‘coming of age’.9

Many of the values and interests which we take for granted in the modern world have been widespread only since the Enlightenment. Take, for example, our passion for freedom of speech and expression. In pre-Enlightenment Christendom, one was expected to think in ways that were consistent with what the church taught; it was heresy to think or express thoughts at variance with orthodoxy or ‘right opinion’. This is why the word ‘freethinker’ (coined during the Enlightenment) gathered the sinister overtones which it has to this day, even though it meant at first what it literally said. But with freedom to think came freedom to explore new ideas and new knowledge. Already at the Renaissance, scholars had begun to pore over the ancient writings which included the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. From the Enlightenment scholars began to ask questions about the history of those texts and to develop a greater historical awareness. A static view of reality began to give way to the acknowledgement of change, and then to an evolving view of reality. The whole mental picture of the world we live in began to alter.

Thus the ‘Christian west’ is today very different from the ‘autonomous world of meaning and existence’, which it was when known as Christendom. Christendom is no more, and the so-called ‘Christian west’ is only the shell of its former self. The shell remains clearly visible in many structures, both physical and social, but they are no longer parts of a living whole. With the demise of Christendom or Christian civilization in the western world, what kind of civilization is left? Is it only the ghostly remnant of Christian civilization? Does it have any substance of its own which will enable it to survive, or is it living on past capital? Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, recently said: We are witnessing the sudden eruption of a new civilization on the planet’.10 This is certainly not the Christian civilization which Christians expected and hoped for at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet it manifests many of the values and ideals of western Christendom (partly because this new civilization was fostered by the spread of European culture). Is Christianity thus continuing, rather like a leaven in the new global civilization, as many Christians would like to believe? Or is Christianity destined for the same fate as Christendom? To this question we now turn.


1. John Baillie, What is Christian Civilization?, p.44.

2. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe, pp. vii-viii.

3. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, p. 35.

4. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion.

5. Ronald Gregor Smith, Secular Christianity, p. 138

6. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy p. 185

7. See also Chapter 4.

8. Johann-Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, Faith and the Future, p. 31.

9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, pp. 325-27.

10. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, p. 242.